Des Moines, Iowa — A total of 26 Iowa advocacy organizations today sent a letter to state and county officials recommending that they follow the advice of public health experts to make changes to Iowa’s criminal justice and legal systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter urges officials "to partner with local public health experts in developing informed, immediately actionable steps to ensure that public safety and public health are as protected as possible."
This includes reducing jail populations by avoiding making new arrests in cases of low level, non-violent crimes, releasing people who are held merely because they cannot afford bail, and working to parole as many prisoners as possible.
Also, since non-attorney visits have been temporarily suspended in Iowa prisons and in some Iowa jails, it points out the importance of keeping people held in prison and jails in touch with their families and urges free telephone and video calls.
The letter commends those steps that state officials have already taken to protect vulnerable Iowans in jails and prisons while respecting constitutional rights, but calls on officials to go further and adopt additional safeguards in response to the pandemic.
“People in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer. “They are housed in close quarters. Many were already in poor health when they were incarcerated. This makes for a perfect storm for outbreaks of COVID-19. We urge our state leaders to release a number of Iowans, including those who are being held for low-level charges, are going to get out soon anyway, or are simply in jail awaiting trial and can't afford to post bail."
Further, said Stringer, such measures will also protect law enforcement, prison and jail employees, and the general public. "Everyone is a link in the chain. Public health experts have warned that preventing COVID-19 is far more difficult for people in the criminal legal system. Being arrested and detained, incarcerated, or required to appear in public spaces—such as courts and supervision offices—or having mobility limited even while home, can drastically limit a person’s ability to exercise precautions or to seek medical help."
On any given day, about 16,000 people are in Iowa correctional facilities. That's the same size as the population of Clive, Boone, or Oskaloosa. About 8,500 are in Iowa prisons, which employ about 2,700 people. Another 3,600 are in county jails. Further, Iowa prisons are now about 23 percent over capacity.
The letter is being sent to a variety of officials and organizations who can take action, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, the director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Board of Parole, the sheriffs, and county attorneys of all 99 counties in Iowa, police chiefs, and others.
Some of the highlights of the letter's recommendations include:
- Limit the number of people being arrested. Issue citations and tickets rather than arrests.
- County attorneys and judges should use their discretion to limit the number of people put into jail, including reducing those held on pre-trial detention. They should also be especially mindful of inmates’ ability to post bail: 87 percent of the people in Iowa county jails are there because they don’t have enough money to post bail.
- County attorneys also should dismiss cases with minor offenses, such as drug possession.
- County jails should release people who would be released in the next 60 days anyway.
- Officials should limit the number of people who are detained or incarcerated for technical rule violations while on probation, such as testing positive for alcohol or drugs or missing a parole appointment.
- The governor should commute sentences for anyone whose sentence would end in one year anyway. She should commute the sentences for people whose sentences would end in two years who are especially vulnerable because of heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, or otherwise have a compromised immune system.
In addition to the ACLU of Iowa, organizations signing the letter are:
- Iowa-Nebraska NAACP
- Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault
- Quad Cities Interfaith
- Latinos Unidas para un Nuevo Amanecer
- Iowa CURE
- Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement
- Project Iowa
- St. Paul AME Church
- League of Women Voters of Iowa
- Inside Out Community Reentry Community
- League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa and LULAC national
- NAMI Iowa
- American Friends Service Committee/Iowa Immigrants’ Rights Program
- Des Moines Showing Up for Racial Justice
- The Image Program
- One Iowa
- Rape Victim Advocacy Program
- Interfaith Alliance of Iowa
- Transformations Iowa
- Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Transgender Voter Network
- Regret No Opportunities
- Just Voices Iowa
- Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition
The letter in full can be found here.